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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Research Process

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.

Introduction to the Research Process

graph of the research cycle with all the different stages connected with arrows to show how the process flows like a repeating cycle and isn't linear.Information Literacy isn't just about research, but knowing how to do research for your classes is vital to your academic progress. You might be used to just doing your research through Google, typing in your question and picking the first or second source in the results list. This might be good enough for basic questions, such as finding a fact to prove someone wrong, but it probably won't get you very far when researching for a paper or for answering important questions. Research isn't a one time search, it is a process.

Research isn't linear either. You don't start at point A, then move to B, C, and so on. It's a cyclical process that usually involves a lot of trial and error before you find what you actually need. It can take several different searches to get enough information about your topic or question. No one should expect to type a few random words into a database or search engine and get perfect results the first time. Understanding the research cycle can help you to get better results.

We sometimes call it the "research cycle" because at any point in the process you might realize your search results aren't as effective or relevant as you want, that you need more sources, or that you want to focus more on a specific aspect of the topic. This means that you've completed the process with some sources, but you'll need to go through the process again to get more. You might even go back to the beginning and refine or change your topic to one that works better or is more interesting to you. Keeping all this in mind can help you push forward and save you some frustration if things don't go the way you expect.

a flowchart graph of the research process with the different stages: plan, search, find & evaluate, synthesize, and reflect.

Note for Info 1010:

As you work through the modules of INFO 1010, you will look at each of these steps listed here in depth, doing an assignment for each, and working through the Research process in a more linear fashion. But you might have noticed that while each assignment takes you through that step of the process, it's not necessarily giving you enough sources to meet the requirements of your ENGL 2010 paper (if you are in a co-required section with ENGL 2010) or research project. This is because each assignment is to teach you how to use that skill, and then you will repeat these steps as many times as necessary to search, fine, evaluate, and synthesize as many times as necessary to complete whatever research assignment you are working on, and that as you do so, you reflect on what you are learning and make changes to your plan as necessary. This is why in reality, the Research Process looks more like that first graphic, and the second flowchart graphic is to help you see how the process works in the INFO 1010 class.

Planning

Just like any skill, research takes practice. It takes time to figure out what kinds of searches get you the results you want. Having a plan can get you started in the right direction. Planning out what topic you want to explore and getting background information can help you determine if it's researchable and interesting to you. Framing your topic as a research question can guide your searches and help you later when you write your thesis statement.

As you brainstorm a topic and gather background information, it helps to make a list of keywords, along with synonyms or variations of those keywords. This allows you to search for information sources in various ways and can improve your chances of finding the information you're looking for. Planning how you'll search is just the first step of the process, and you will most likely find that some keywords get you better results or you may find new ones as you search.

Searching

Searching is the part of the process that puts your plan into action. It helps you figure out if your keywords will get useful results in a search tool, such as a database. Don't just do one search. Try different combinations of keywords and synonyms until you find sources that seem relevant to your topic. Choosing the right database is also an important part of searching.

For INFO 1010, we will use a general database called Academic Search Ultimate, which has a little bit of everything. This will give you practice searching databases, and can help you get a general idea of how keywords work. Once you have done a couple searches in a general database, you might want to branch out to a subject specific database, which will have more information on your topic and will probably give you more results using your same keywords.

Databases often work best when you use specialized search strategies. Search statements are kind of like formulas or commands that use a combination of keywords and "Boolean operators," which tell the databases what to do with the keywords. The most common Boolean operator is AND, which simply means that all results must have all the keywords in the search statement (ex: cats AND dogs AND shelters). Correct spelling is also important. Databases are fast, not smart, so they search exactly what you put in the search box. Having a good search statement will increase your chances of finding good sources.

Finding and Evaluating

As you search, it's important to evaluate what you find. Evaluating involves checking the results to see if your search statement is getting the right kinds of sources you want, and then looking more closely at sources to see if they are relevant and credible. This is where you decide whether to keep and use an article, or whether to keep searching. 

There are several tips and tricks to determine if an article is going to work for your topic. Some of the things you need to consider include whether your source is too old to be useful, or doesn't have the authority to back up your argument. INFO 1010 will use the CRAAP test as a tool to quickly make those decisions. The CRAAP test is a set of criteria to consider when deciding if a source works for your topic and if it can give your paper the support it needs to really shine.

Synthesizing

Synthesis is how you pull important points and supporting evidence out of the different sources you found to support your argument and answer your questions. You can use the work of others as evidence in a research paper, but remember to give the authors credit by properly citing the sources. Knowing how to read and synthesize the main points of your sources is an important part of research. You must know what is being said by different scholars first if you want to enter the conversation about that topic. In INFO 1010, you'll use a tool called a Synthesis Matrix to help you know which sources to use in which part of your paper.

Reflection

With any process, it is good to reflect on what you learned as you went through the steps. You should reflect on the research process itself, including how your plan worked out, where you found the best information, and what you learned about your topic as you synthesized your sources and wrote your paper. This kind of reflection can help you transfer what you learned to different situations, whether in school or some other context.